#1 Stephen F. Austin 83, #2 Sam Houston St. 70
Stephen F. Austin left little doubt as to who the best team in the Southland Conference is, again handling a good Sam Houston State squad basically from start to finish. The win caps a remarkable two year run, where Brad Underwood’s Lumberjacks won 39 of 40 games against Southland competition.
Credit Sam Houston State Coach Jason Hooten for trying something, anything to gain an edge. One of SHSU’s advantages over most teams is 6-11 center Michael Holyfield. But against Stephen F. Austin’s lineup of smaller, quicker players Holyfield is often a non-factor. In the two regular season meetings, he played just 14 and four minutes. In this game Holyfield started, but Hooten had him "defending" SFA point guard Trey Pinkney in the man defense. Pinkney is not a shooting threat, and it allowed Holyfield to sag way off and stay in the paint. Perhaps it worked, as Stephen F. Austin got off to a slow start offensively. Unfortunately for Sam Houston so did they, as both teams fought their way through a physical, defensive first half.
Coming out of the under eight timeout, the Lumberjacks began to take command but not before facing some adversity. Bobby King, a senior transfer from Florida A&M, went down with a non-contact injury to his left knee. Not normally a major factor for SFA, King was off to a good start in this game scoring once over Holyfield and blocking two shots on defense. Already playing without normal rotation players Clide Geffrard and Connor Brooks, the Jacks depth would be tested. Shortly after the injury, Sam Houston grabbed a 25-24 lead on a second chance three pointer by Kaheem Ransom. SFA answered with the most definitive run of the game, a 13-2 spurt, to close the first half and grab a 37-27 halftime lead.
The final three points of that run came on a buzzer-beating, 30+ foot banked in three pointer by Tanner Clayton.
In the second half, SFA firmly controlled the game and held the lead around 10 points the entire half. If not for an inspired second half performance from Holyfield, the Jacks would have won going away. The senior center tossed the Bearkats on his back, scoring 18 points with 12 rebounds (seven offensive) and four blocks. Unfortunately for SHSU, the other seniors who helped carry this team had one of, if not their worst combined game of the past two years. Jabari Peters, Ransom, and DeMarcus Gatlin combined to score 35 points on 11-of-31 shooting, including 3-of-13 from three. Add in junior Paul Baxter who scored just three points from the free throw line, missing all 10 attempts from the floor including four threes. As a team, the Bearkats made just three of 20 three point attempts.
The two main reasons Stephen F. Austin was able to hold off Holyfield’s torrid charge in the second half: juniors Thomas Walkup and Jared Johnson. Walkup, the Southland Player of the Year and the Southland tournament’s Most Outstanding Player for the second straight year, scored a game-high 24 points with eight rebounds and five assists. SFA’s precision offense routinely found Walkup on the receiving end of passes as he cut hard through the lane, getting lay-ins near the basket. As a team, SFA assisted on 15 of their 26 made field goals. Johnson, my personal "MVP" of this tournament for SFA, scored 17 off the bench. Several times, both in the semis against Northwestern State and in the finals, the ball found Johnson when the opponent was trying to make a run. He made a big play each time.
So for the second year in a row the Lumberjacks will dance on the big stage. Everyone remembers last season when SFA, a 12 seed, defeated 5 seed VCU in one of the most memorable games of the entire NCAA Tournament. If the Jacks can get any of their injured players back on the floor before Thursday/Friday, especially Geffrard, there’s no reason to think their depth and teamwork wouldn’t give another higher seed all it can handle in the Round of 64.